What’s a rabbit to do if it finds itself running for its life from a hawk? Dart to the side as quickly as possible, a new study suggests. To determine how some lucky prey escape the birds’ deadly talons, researchers strapped a 20-gram video camera to the head of a northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), a large raptor commonly used in falconry. Then, they sent it out to hunt in the forests and fields near the region of Twenthe in the Netherlands. Based on 16 recordings of the hawk pursuing rabbits and pheasants, the researchers were able to identify the goshawk’s strategy. During most pursuits, the goshawk fixed its steely gaze on the fleeing prey, then flew at a constant angle to its intended victim, anticipating where the animal would be by the time the hawk caught up if it ran in a straight line, and correcting its course as its prey swerved. When the bird got close, it switched to direct pursuit, following at the heels of its prey. Roughly half of the pheasants and rabbits that got away—15 in all—did so by darting off to the side, the scientists report online today in The Journal of Experimental Biology. This sudden motion foiled the goshawk not by simply outmaneuvering it, but by breaking the hawk’s visual lock on its target, the researchers suggest. The hawk caught only one animal—a pheasant that failed to dart away.
(Video credit: Robert Musters)